It may surprise you to hear what I am going to say in a moment especially because of the nature of today. Today, for all practical purposes, is a day of celebration and commemoration. We celebrate the 85th anniversary of our congregation. It is no small feat to have been proclaiming God’s Word and reaching out into this community for that length of time. Marking such milestones is an occasion for joy. We also commemorate Reformation Sunday. This Sunday is set aside in the church year, specifically for Lutherans, so that we can remember the event that marked the beginning of the Reformation–it’s the day Martin Luther nailed the 95 Thesis to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther intended his thesis to be items for debate in reforming the abuses of the Church of Rome. However, the debate turned into much, much more including the beginning of the denomination which would bear Luther’s name: the Lutheran Church. We are a part of that Church, and we commemorate this day to remember our identity and the foundational principles which led us to take a stand against abuses within the Church catholic. Yes, indeed it is a day for celebration and commemoration.
Yet, even in knowing this; even in knowing it is such a day, there is a part of me which is touched by sadness. There is a part of me which has some grief on this day.
"How could this be possible?" you might ask. "How can you feel grief on such a day of celebration and commemoration? Can that even be possible?"
My answer to you is, "Yes, it can." And if you will give me a few moments, I will try to explain.
Let’s begin with the Reformation. Yes, the Reformation and the events surrounding Martin Luther gave us our start as a denomination. It forged our identity, but it came at a great cost. It came with a death. Up until the Reformation, Christianity was relatively united. There were only two denominations: the Church of Rome which has become known today as the Roman Catholic Church, and the Eastern Orthodox Church which had its leadership stationed in Constantinople. These two churches were the only ones, and even though they didn’t quite get along well, at least people didn’t get confused regarding what it meant to be a Christian. Folks could speak about the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church without seeing much of a division.
After the Reformation, this was not to be the case. Quite frankly, because of Luther, Christ’s Church was fragmented into thousands of little pieces. No longer do we have just two denominations, but we literally have thousands. Sure, there are several main ones, but we must face the truth: the Church is a broken body. And it continues to break. Even the Lutheran Church is not of one full accord: we have the ELCA, the Missouri Synod, the Wisconsin Synod, the NALC, the LCMC, and several other smaller bodies just here in the U.S.A. Jesus prayed that all of His followers may be one, and on one level, we are certainly united in His name, but as a Church, we are broken. The Reformation started that, and it is partly and occasion to grieve this death.
And let me speak a little to this congregation’s history, if I may. Our congregation’s roots go much farther than 1927. In fact, our roots dig into what used to be the St. Nicolai congregation which was located where our current cemetery now sits. This congregation was affiliated with the Missouri Synod, and it worshiped and proclaimed God’s Word from 1878 until 1925 or so. In 1925, the pastor who was serving St. Nicolai said that he could no longer serve the congregation and needed to devote his full energies to his congregation in Sealy, therefore for two years the church struggled to find a pastor.
I quote Ora Dell Hartmann’s history of St. John compiled at it’s 40th anniversary celebration and retold by Sydell Swearingen in this printed copy, "For two years the men wrestled with the problem, and then an idea struck. Why not organize a new church and become affiliated with the First Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Texas? Perhaps then they could interest Rev. J.K. Poch in supplying service for them." Eventually, this is exactly what happened. In a very real way, the death of the St. Nicolai congregation resulted in the beginning of St. John. With death, one must grieve.
But this is all in the past, you might say. Why grieve over it? Why feel sadness? Well, because I think St. John has experienced a form of death over the past eight years that I have served it as well.
Now, that might sound very, very strange to many of you here this morning, but again, hear me out. When I first arrived here eight years ago, I entered into a congregation where everyone knew everyone else. You were a tight knit group who genuinely loved and cared for one another. On Sunday morning, you could count on certain people being there who you could talk to and be with. There was little to no mystery about who would be in church. But now, things have changed. Things are very different. We now have two services, and for some this seems like two congregations. We now have many more members, and if I were to ask you whether or not you knew everyone here today, you’d probably say, "No." In fact, I hear from time to time someone say, "Whenever I go to church, I don’t recognize half the people." Because we have grown; because we have added so many new folks, we are no longer that tight knit, everyone-knows-everyone congregation. That congregation no longer exists: in a way, it is dead, and with death there comes grief. So, yes, my brothers and sisters, even though today is a day of celebration and commemoration, I do have a touch of sadness. I do have a touch of grief because in all of the events we remember today, there has been death.
But Jesus tells us something very important today. He says, "If you continue in my Word, you are truly my disciples. You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." And one of the greatest truths about Christianity is that death is not the end. With death comes resurrection. With death comes a new life and a new way of living.
Yes, in the Reformation, the united Church died and has become splintered, but as a result of the Reformation, you and I now have access to the Holy Word of God. We now have access to the Bible written and translated into our own language. No longer are we bound to have someone else tell us the story, we can read it for ourselves. No longer do we have to have someone mediate it for us, we can see the words plainly. I personally wouldn’t trade this for the world. Billions of people can now read the story of God’s great acts of the world for themselves, and this is no small matter. It is good and worth commemorating.
Yes, St. Nicolai died as a congregation, but it provided the foundation for St. John. The Nicolai congregation passed on to you its desire for generosity and being involved in the community. The mantle was passed onto you, and now you continue that streak of generousness as you involve yourself in helping those with large medical bills; those who cannot pay their monthly expenses; those who live in the Central African Republic; those who need housing; and those whose homes were damaged by fire. You continue to preach and teach God’s Word in this community and engage those who are seeking to find God in this area. Out of death came a new life that has been going strong for 85 years, and it is worth celebrating.
And, now, what new life are we experiencing as a congregation? Where will the next several years lead us? Sometimes, a congregation grows to a certain point and levels out. It fails to deal with the grief it experiences as one form of church dies and another begins. Sometimes, those congregations then begin to decline until they are once again the church where everyone knows everyone else. Other churches; however, realize this is actually a form of death as well. They realize a church cannot survive if it declines. Some congregations make decisions to move forward and continue to reach out. Last Sunday, as a congregation, I believe you made such a decision when you decided to press forward and hire a part time youth director–a person who would seek to help parents pass down their faith to their children. Rather than try to step back to that congregation where everyone knew everyone, you risked to continue to try and reach out–to continue to try and ask others to be a part of our mission and ministry here–to continue to spread God’s Word not only among yourselves but among those who still have not heard the good news of Jesus Christ. Yes, there was death, but there is new life, abundant life, a different kind of life, but one which has the possibility of bringing hope and joy to many.
Within life, there is death, and death causes grief, yet today we are reminded about the truth–the truth of resurrection. This is not some hypothetical construct, but it is something we have experienced as a church and a congregation–through the Reformation, through our history as a congregation, and in our current mission as a congregation right here and right now. Therefore, let us celebrate that resurrection with joy and gladness. Amen.